Definition of Speakeasy
The term speakeasy was originally referred to as the illicit drinking house. This was during the Prohibition-era (1920-1933) in the United States. In today’s standards the definition of a speakeasy is any bar that has been modelled and conceptualised after those Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Speakeasies were backed by prominent religious groups, some today may call them cults. Nevertheless the U.S. government outlawed the production and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933, which meant if you fancied a drink in the 1920s, you were going to have to go underground. I love bourbon myself and I couldn’t imagine not being able to drink without running the risk of a fine or jail.
During this time several watering holes began popping up in cities across America, and patrons often had to know a secret password or entrance to get in and have a drink or fancy a working girl.
Speakeasies became a staple of American culture in the 20s, and though Prohibition is long repealed, Americans still seek out the charm of a backroom bar. New York City is home to some of the best and classiest “speakeasy” bars in the country. This is my top 10 list of best speakeasies in NYC.
#10 THE BACK ROOM
Tucked away among all the glitz and glamour of Manhattan, you’ll find The Back Room under the inconspicuous guise of “Lower East Side Toy Company.” Once inside you definitely can feel the history of a speakeasy. Ironically enough this bar once was a true speakeasy. This is definitely not a common thing as most are just build off of inspiration. Here you are served your drinks in tea cups while bottles are covered in paper bags.
#9 DEAR IRVING
The perfect Prohibition Parlour might just be at Dear Irving, an upscale lounge with a vintage vibe and feel to it. Dear Irving has two locations at Gramercy and on the Hudson (newer), and both are dead even in the swank factor. Dear Irving Gramercy is Prohibition-meets-Paris glamour. I legit thought I was going to bump into Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Joyce. The bar spares no detail in making the most luxurious environment.
#8 EMPLOYEES ONLY
This has the traditional speakeasy atmosphere mixed with a modern cocktail list. Employees Only is a great hidden gem in the quirky but fun West Village. Opened in 2004, this 20s-inspired bar is renowned for its retro cocktails, but it also offers a unique menu of American fare decently priced. It’s a great bar for those who want elegance in their drinks and atmosphere. Oh did I mention it’s open until 4 a.m. all week long? It gets extremely busy during peak hours, so your best bet is to make a reservation to avoid hassle and disappointment.
Chumley’s is the place to go for an awesome history lesson and great drinks. One of New York’s most famous speakeasies in the 1920s, it became overly popular for the literary community even after Prohibition, including the Lost and Beat Generations. Today, there still isn’t a sign marking the Bedford Street building, and it retains some of its original character. Today it mainly functions as a restaurant serving modern American fare, and the interior of the bar has been renovated into a beautiful blend of old and new.
In case you were wondering PDT stands for “Please Don’t Tell.” You most likely won’t find PDT if you don’t know what to look for. Patrons must enter through Crif Dogs, a hot dog joint in the East Village. There, the entrance is hidden in a phone booth where a hostess will greet you. This is what was done back in the prohibition days in order to get a drink. The back narrow bar is made of dark wood. The narrow bar in the back is made of dark wood and accented with taxidermy. The best part is if you want a little extra, you can order from Crif Dogs’ menu.
#5 BOOTLEGGER JACK’S
With a name like Bootlegger Jack’s, you can expect all the puffy couches and patterned wallpaper a Golden Age parlor to have. This gem is located below Uncle Jack’s Meat House in Astoria. Bootlegger Jack’s has all the life of a 21st-century bar with all the charm of a vintage one. Bootlegger Jack’s also has a food menu unique to the one upstairs and offers packages if you want to use the venue for a party. Just let your guests know they have to enter the lounge through the unisex bathroom above.
#4 MANHATTAN CRICKET CLUB
The Manhattan Cricket Club is a rare speakeasy on the Upper West Side. It’s located and well hidden above Burke and Wills Restaurant. It stays true to its cricket theme, decorated with cricket trophies and turn of the century decor. While the club looks posh, it is open to the public, though members are entitled to special perks. Each member is issued a private locker where they can keep a bottle of spirits of their choosing. However, everyone can enjoy handcrafted cocktails, and the club maintains an inviting, friendly atmosphere.
#3 LITTLE BRANCH
If you want to relax and enjoy the speakeasy experience without the big crowds then this is the place for you. Little Branch is located in Greenwich Village. It’s low key which makes for a quiet night in a comfortable lounge. Bartenders are even dressed in period-appropriate clothing and certain behavioral rules must be observed in true Prohibition form. The staff all have an extremely well-cultivated knowledge of cocktails, and they might even create a custom drink for you. You won’t miss the extremely small single doorway on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Leroy Street.
Maybe you’ve been to a speakeasy-themed bar before, maybe you haven’t. However, did you know there are a number of Japanese-inspired speakeasies in New York City? One absolute must-see is Karasu. Karasu is modeled after an authentic izakaya, aka casual Japanese restaurant and bar. You enter through a back door at Walter’s in Fort Greene, and you’ll find yourself teleported to Japan. Though there aren’t any gimmicks to get in like other popular speakeasies, the Asian-themed cocktail list and dinner menu will make you forget that you didn’t have to know a secret password for entry.
#1 RAINES LAW ROOM
Raines Law Room serves snazzy drinks with a side of humor. Playfully named after a 19th-century law intended to repress alcohol consumption in New York. This speakeasy is decorated with a tin ceiling, plush furniture, and velvet-covered VIP area. Recently Raines Law Room opened a second location at the William Hotel. The Chelsea location boasts wall buzzers for the private area, but arrive early because Raines is a popular hangout. Also make sure to ring the doorbell for entry—the host’s discretion will decide who enters the dimly lit lounge.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed my list. Stay tuned for more of Hollywood Wil’s top lists.